As declassified British government documents relating to a secret ‘interrogation centre’ were released to the press this week, one of those hooded, beaten and subjected to brutal psychological ‘techniques’ tells his story.
Earlier this week, the Pat Finucane Centre released declassified British government documents to the local press which they say show that two official inquiries and the European Court of Human Rights were kept in the dark by the British security services about the top secret Ballykelly interrogation centre.
Michael Donnelly was one of 12 men interned and subjected to ‘deep interrogation’ at the secret Ballykelly centre. On August 1971, over 350 people were arrested and interned, 12 of whom would later become known as the ‘hooded men’. One of these men, Michael Donnelly, is in no doubt that the ‘deep interrogation’ techniques to which he was subjected constituted torture.
In the declassified British government documents, descriptions of the five-techniques (wall-standing, sleep deprivation, white noise, a diet of bread and water, hooding) state that internees wore hoods “quite voluntarily”, and that they were not subjected to wall standing for more than six hour intervals “at a stretch”.
Mr Donnelly described claims anyone would wear the hoods voluntarily as “ridiculous”. He recalled struggling to breathe through his own blood-soaked hood. The wall-standing, he said, was simply done as “somewhere to put you” between interrogations, beatings and psychological ‘torture’.
The former internee also claims that whilst being transported from Ebrington Barracks,he was taken in the back of a “furniture removal lorry” in the midst of a British army convoy, contrary to claims that the interrogations were ‘RUC led’.
The former prominent Republican described how an RUC officer refused to cooperate and serve papers after seeing Mr Donnelly’s blood-spattered and bruised face for the first time as his hood was removed. He described the mental ‘torture’ techniques’ and revealed his suspicions that he may have been drugged with a psychoactive substance during the secret ‘interrogations.’
He said: “I was lifted and taken to where Victoria Carpark on the Strand Road is - that was an army base then. I was held there for about an hour and put in the back of a lorry and there was another fellow along with me. They took us in the back of a lorry. We were roughed up a bit - hit with rifle butts and beat around a bit, nothing too bad. They had the rifles and they cocked them - some of them did - and they started pushing them into my side. It was very painful, and of course I was thinking that if we had’ve went over a pothole I would have been gone.
“We were taken to Ebrington Barracks, all lined up, hands above our heads - a big line of people - and they came down and started sorting people out. This old man was dragged in, he had come looking for his son. I knew him, I knew his son. They didn’t get his son so they took the father in. The man must’ve been well into his sixties with the white hair. They dragged him in and threw him down. He was a grey colour and he was moaning. They held him up in the back of the land rover. They were looking for the son. They held him up and put a rubber bullet gun into his stomach and they fired it. There was a bit of a crowd. They sort of held back from throwing stones in case they did something to the old man. Myself and another man went to help him and we were beat to the ground with rifle butts. The old man died not long after it. He had emergency surgery but he never recovered.
“It was in Ebrington Barracks anyway. We were taken into a room. You were held all the time by British soldiers - maybe four or five around you. There were two Special Branch men sitting at the table. One of the Branch men turned round. There was an army blanket in the room with a slit in it about that size (Mr Donnelly indicates a slit around four or five inches). They would say, ‘what about this one?’ The blanket opened a wee bit, so somebody peeked out. In my case somebody said ‘yes.’”
“Once we were selected, the people they had picked up generally, by mistake anyway, were let out and the people they wanted to let out were let out. The rest of us were taken to Magilligan. It was in a Nissan hut in Magilligan. We were taken down one at a time. It would have taken about two minutes to walk down to the interrogation centre and you sat down, and the offer was given: ‘You’re definitely going to jail. The more you tell us, the sooner you’ll get out. Tell us a little and you will be in for a long time. Tell us a lot and you won’t be in so long.’
“My answer was, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. Mistaken identity’, something like that. ‘You’re sticking to that?’ they asked me. ‘Yeah’. Within about two or three minutes you were back up again.”
The Hooded Treatment
“I was obviously selected for the hooded treatment. Most of the people were taken away. It was myself, Paddy Joe McClean, Mickey Montgomery and Pat Shivers. The place was empty and we were the only four left. It looked very ominous, the more everybody disappeared. It started to get dark. We knew we weren’t going anywhere. Paddy Joe McClean, he said, ‘I don’t like the look of this. I think we’re in for some sort of special treatment. You better brace yourself for it boys.’ We were kept there all night. The soldiers must’ve been told to keep us awake so they banged on the tin roof with their batons.
“Some time in the early hours of the morning, the middle of the night, some fellow had a hold of my arm. The police stepped in then. There were soldiers all around us. The next thing the hood was stuck over my head.
“Hooded, we went away in the helicopter. In the helicopter they said, ‘so you won’t talk’. We were told we were over the Irish Sea and they were going to throw us out. We were up in the air. You knew you were up in the helicopter because of the vibrations of it and all that. I heard - I mean they were shouting over the noise of the helicopter - somebody was obviously dragged to the door and I could hear them shouting. You could feel the wind coming in the door. They were shouting, ‘This is your last chance. Are you going to talk?’ Every one of them refused. The next thing I heard was ‘aahhh’. They had been thrown out. It came to my turn and I said something very patriotic. I can’t remember what it was - ‘long live the Republic’, I think. I hit the ground. It wasn’t just a wee, small drop. They pushed the back of your head so you ‘burled’ round, you know. I landed on the ground - boof! It knocked the wind out of me. I was picked up and dragged across the place and a boiler suit was put on you, which in my case was far too wee. It wasn’t very comfortable.”
The Torture began
“That was when the torture began. There was this noise. White noise is a fairly apt description. It seemed to come in like ‘fingers’. That is the only way I could describe it. Of course, it affected your ears and that, but the very strange thing was it seemed to go into your head and go out the other side. It seemed to go into your body and go out again. I’ve never heard anything like it. It was 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 different pitches. It was quite a weird sound. A wee bit like a helicopter taking off - whirring and hissing - but nothing really like that. That’s about as close a description I could get.
“One of the things that occurred to me at the time was - I had been watching a documentary, it was the height of the Cold War, that the Russians had tortured people using noise techniques and hooding. So I started to realise, even though the program had said the Russians were doing it, that the British were doing it.
“I started to realise, this is happening to me. One of the things was, it was a bit of an advantage in that you could keep a wee bit ahead of it if you realised what was happening and try and stay in control of it.
“We were taken away, up in the helicopter again and certainly badly beat up along the way. We were brought back then. At this stage, I don’t know, maybe two days after it - you lost all track of time. It was the same hood the whole time, double-lined. It was starting to slip over my face. All the time I was trying to breathe out the bottom of it, I was sucking up air, but the hood was really like a plastic bag. I didn’t realise - I thought at the time I was sweating - but when you took the hood off it was blood. It had been sticking to my face with my own blood but I didn’t realise. I thought it was sweat.
“This time we were brought back and they served a detention order on us to try and in some way make it legal. By this stage we hadn’t been served with anything so prior to that, even by their law, it was illegal. I was badly beaten up on the way. We were handed over to the RUC and they really went to war. One of the things that saved me was that they were kicking each other. I was at the bottom of a scrum and there were so many of them all trying to get at me. I heard one of them screaming because he had been kicked by one of the others trying to get at me.
“At this stage I couldn’t say I felt any physical pain, I just felt a dull thud, but no sort of sharp pain. I had been beat sort of halfway unconscious at this stage. I was held back in a chair. I could see the arms so I knew it was RUC. The hood was pulled off. When the hood was pulled off there was a police sergeant. I could tell it was a police sergeant because in those days they wore bright gold stripes - very prominent.
“He had his head down. When the hood was pulled off I was looking at the top of his head. He was looking at the papers he was about to serve. I suppose he was rehearsing his wee bit, you know. He looked up, when he saw me he said ‘aww Jesus! Look what ye’s did. Look what ye’s done! How are we going to cover this up? You’ve killed him!’
“I was thinking: ‘This is me he’s talking about. God, I must be in a bad way if he is talking about me like that.’ He refused to serve the papers. He was really in shock.
“What they did then was - my hair was long back then - they held my head back by my hair and one of the other ones took the papers. He shouted at your man ‘you serve them, you serve them papers’. The man said he was having nothing to do with it. The other one took the papers and smeared them into my face and said ‘read that.’ When he took it away it was like the Turin Shroud. My blood was all over it.”
Everything went black
“They took us away again in the helicopter. It might have been Magilligan again, it might have been another part of Ballykelly. It felt like about a half an hour in the helicopter but it might have been just ten minutes. You have no sense of time.
“I had handcuffs on behind my back. There was this RUC man and he was shouting ‘let me, let me’ and I got hit in the chest. If you can imagine, it went straight through me. I got badly winded and everything left me. I went to breathe in again and I couldn’t. When I look at it now, I suppose my chest was black, blue and purple. I imagine he kicked me, because I don’t think he could have hit me that hard. He must have kicked me in the chest as if he was kicking a door down. I went to breathe back in and nothing happened. Everything went black. It felt like the blackness came up from below and when it got to my eyes I passed out. When I came back I was being dragged off the helicopter again towards the interrogation centre. It was, well they talk about wall standing, but that’s just where you were. You were being beat up all over the place and that was just somewhere to put you in between rather than having you lying down or sitting.”
“I always maintained that we had been drugged at some stage. They talk about LSD. I had no experience of taking drugs either before or since, so I would have nothing to compare it to. At one stage towards the end of the thing. I think they say in that report that we got bread and water. I only got it once. They were very anxious that I took it. Of course I refused: ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I think that programme had talked about the noise machine and drugging as well, so I was a bit wary. I wouldn’t take anything at all. I kept my mouth clenched shut. They put something into my mouth, they actually broke a bit of my tooth, wedged my mouth open. They shoved a bit of bread into it and the bit of bread was miniscule. They poured in water and it was like I nearly drowned and I had to swallow it. I think whatever they were giving me was in the bread. That was the only bread I got. I thought I was drugged. They made sure I had swallowed. We were taken into a wee room, a cell. We were pushed in there and there was a mattress on the floor. They went out and slammed the door. I was pulling the hood up, but bluffing them so that they couldn’t see that I had taken it off, so that I could see out. The room started swimming, very quickly. I don’t remember very much about that. I heard music. At that time I had been listening to a particular version of a song that I had listened to quite a lot and particularly liked it. I heard the whole thing, from start to finish. Some of the other people said they heard music as well. Paddy Joe McClean said he heard some classical piece. It was always something they had listened to recently, we all heard different tunes. Obviously it was all in the head.
“I remember then, coming round. The last interrogation I had. I found out afterwards how long I had disappeared for. They took us in the helicopter up to Crumlin Road. There was a hole knocked in the wall specially for it. We were took into the basement in Crumlin Road. Anybody that tried to get into the cell, I went for them. They were trying to get me something to eat, but I just went for them. I was thinking I was going to be poisoned again. One of the screws, a PO, was a reasonable type of Principal Officer. I heard him giving out to people outside who were shouting things in. So, he came in, and said ‘I’ve seen others like you and I know what you’ve went through. Stay in there, I’m here now and you’re under my control. Nobody is eating anything, none of the others are eating anything.’ He threw the newspaper in, I think it was the Irish News, and the date was on it. I thought that it couldn’t be nine days. It felt like less. It felt like three or four but it couldn’t be nine days. We were taken up the stairs later, to C-Wing.”
Location of the secret interrogation centre
He said: “In terms of the location of the place, it was always thought to be Girdwood Barracks, in Belfast. Nobody had a clue. My son, he was only an infant at the time, and he was very sick at Altnagelvin, so I got six or eight hours out of Long Kesh. The screws took me in a prison van and took me to York Street railway station in Belfast. I went to Derry on the train, and as the train was going through Ballykelly - it was an airfield at one time, during the second world war but by then it was an army base and there were jeeps all over the place - when the train went into Ballykelly they sounded the horn.
“At intervals during the torture - it was quite well spaced out, maybe once every six hours or so - you would have heard this horn. Near where I lived, in behind the Guildhall, there used to be boats and on foggy nights they would have sounded the horn. It sounded exactly the same. So when I was getting tortured, you were always trying to figure out where you were and when I heard this horn, I thought this must be somewhere near the docks. Later, when I was on the train going through Ballykelly I heard the sound of the horn and I went ‘woah’ that’s where I was. It was in Ballykelly.”